Each spring, second-year novices participate in an immersive teaching workshop aimed at introducing them to the theories and realities of Catholic social teaching; the three-week seminar happens both inside and outside the classroom. If the novitiate is the “school of the heart,” then this Catholic social teaching workshop is a central part of its field work. Among many places, the Louisiana State Penitentiary becomes an unlikely classroom to probe questions of faith, community and vocation.
“We began including a retreat at the prison to give the novices an experience of being ‘evangelized by the poor,’” said Mary Baudouin, provincial assistant for social ministries. “The novices get to see and hear firsthand the faith and strength of the poorest of the poor – those who are locked away for life, many of whom have no family and will never experience freedom, yet who have such strong faith and desire to serve.”
The penitentiary is an 18,000-acre, maximum-security facility often referred to as simply “Angola,” because of its origins as plantation land, once worked by enslaved people reportedly brought from Angola, Africa. The novices spent their day there with Catholic Chaplain Gerald P. “Jay” Jackson, hearing stories of life on the inside from the men who experience it.
“Just like Mother Teresa said, ‘I want to feed the poorest of the poor,’ I want to help the worst of the worst. Because that’s who Jesus came for,” one inmate told the novices. “Please help the worst of the worst.” This plea aligns with the Jesuit mission to serve the greatest need, a call the novices clearly hear.
The segregated communities inside Angola house more than 6,000 men in a series of “camps” that are far enough apart that visitors must drive between them. Most inmates, approximately 85 percent, are serving life sentences. There is a significant need for spiritual care attuned to the unique challenges of life without parole.
Chaplain Jackson plans ministry, classes, spiritual direction and Catholic Masses at each of the camps. He coordinates funerals for men who die in prison, including contacting family members and next-of-kin. “Three to four years is about how long visitors last, then friends and family move on,” Jackson says. “Because of the isolation, it’s sometimes hard to find next of kin or a friend who visited within the last 15 years to notify of the death.”
Many men find solace in vibrant religious communities they create at Angola. One particularly strong community is a group of Catholic Peer Ministers. These men take graduate-level courses in theology to be able to minister to fellow inmates. Together, the novices and ministers attended Mass celebrated by Fr. Bryan Garry, SJ, shared a meal and heard personal testimonies.
One man said to the novices, “I’m a devout Catholic and this is my family, so welcome to my family. Without the Church I would be stripped and robbed of my humanity.” Others spoke of the importance of prayer to the health and faith of individuals and the community: “We unify ourselves by showing that prayer is active.”
Many of the Catholic Peer Ministers thanked the novices, not only for visiting that day, but also for dedicating their lives to the church: “As novices, you’re taking an important step, and it’s a brave step. You’re stepping out and saying, ‘I’m a Christian.’ Thank you.”
The Catholic Peer Ministers is one group whose call to serve is strong. Another vocation the Jesuit novices witnessed is the role of men who work in hospice. Seated in one of the many Catholic chapels, decorated with inmate-made art, Mike and Mark related their experiences ministering to dying men.
Hospice volunteers accompany dying men from the moment a man arrives on the ward, through his last breath, into the morgue, and through the funeral and burial. They also dig graves for those men who have died inside Angola. “The Process,” as it’s called at the prison, is entirely internal; inmates even construct the wooden caskets.
Volunteering on hospice is considered a testament to an inmate’s character and work ethic, and it is both emotionally and physically demanding. Mike has worked for 25 years at the treatment center, and said, “It has been really hard, especially when I was really tight with a guy. I wasn’t expecting to see death, to accept death. But this is the whole nine yards.”
Mike told the novices some people question how his heart has not hardened to all the sadness his role entails. He said he actually feels equipped with God-given gifts: “It affects me every time. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart; it’s just what God has prepared me to do.”
Jackson guided the novices around various sites in the prison: St. Augustine Chapel, the Catholic mainstay in the heart of the prison; Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, whose walls are adorned with inmate-painted murals; the execution chamber. All capital punishments in Louisiana are carried out at Angola.
As he does with every group, Jackson invited the novices to pray the Our Father with him, each with a hand placed on the gurney used when the death penalty is carried out. In a powerful call to reconciliation, Jackson encouraged the novices to remember this gesture when praying the Our Father in the future, particularly the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Novices are encouraged to take the experiences, readings and questions they have to prayer. “Our hearts are broken encountering the painful reality of injustice. It can lead to despair if you don’t have prayer and hope,” Connor Smith, SJ, said.
The second-year novices bring their experience at Angola forward with them, knowing they are supported. The novices find solace in processing their experiences and questions with Jesuit community members. As Jorge Roque, SJ, said, “The wider Jesuit community is full of examples of how to live, how to work in the social apostolate. We see their dedication, passion and weakness, too, and it motivates us.”